On “My Family’s Slave” & Necessary Discussions

Girls Got Game usually features opinion-editorials like this on Real Talk Tuesdays, a column where we provide the space for our contributors to talk about issues that matter to them. The administrators, however, have decided to publish this piece as a timely response to Alexander Tizon’s “My Family’s Slave” – or as timely as we can make it, anyway.

EDIT: The pseudonym for “I” has been changed to “D” for clarity. Furthermore, the link to the Quartz article has been removed in favor of a more nuanced link from the Twitter account of Adrian Chen.


Introduction

This needs to start with a story. I’ve written some of parts of it before, but it’s always good to repeat things. This will also be the first time that I’m putting it out in its entirety.

Many people are starting with judgement, value calls, questions, academic parlance, outrage.

So, I’m going to start with a story.

I hope you finish it before you start Tweeting/Facebooking/writing your own blog posts.

 

Part I

My family moved from the Philippines to the United States of America in 1986. We stayed a year in Los Angeles, and then we went to Vancouver, Canada. We brought two out of our four katulong – let’s call them B and D – with us.

Now people who aren’t from my country or aren’t familiar with Tagalog are going to start Googling at this point.

I’ll get to the word myself in a bit.

Over the course of the eight and a half years we spent abroad, B and D went through the same transformation that we did, as immigrants. We had financed their trip. We took care of their education. While they were studying and while they weren’t able to get new jobs, they were paid to take care of us kids and watch over the house.

By the time I was five, maybe six years old, both of our katulong were no longer our katulong. B and D became two of my parents’ closest friends. They were – are – my second mothers.

When we moved back to Manila years later, they stayed behind. Why would they go with us? Hell, asking them to wasn’t even in the equation.

 

Part II

I’m ten years old in my new home, on my first hot night in the Philippines. It’s been a strange day, because my parents introduced me to the driver and the two katulong we left behind. One of them – let’s call her J – has been following me around the whole day. She insists on helping me undress, and giving me a bath.

I ask my mother about this later. She tells me to let J handle everything. “She’s our maid, like B and D. She was your older brothers’ yaya.” (TL: nanny)

This is important. I was ten, not stupid. I had seen maids on television, read about them in books. But the maids were people in black dresses and white aprons, holding feather dusters, staying hidden away until they were called for. B and D never had uniforms with us. J didn’t. Neither did M, our other katulong, nor our driver R.  Sure, they ate in the kitchen, but they always ate exactly the same food that we did.

Mom said “like B and D”, so I treated J the way I had treated B and D. She became my third mother. She, and several others after her, made it possible for my parents to have enough time to get their feet wet in Manila again, which was way different in 1995 from how they remembered it being in 1986. I’d later learn that my parents went out of their way to provide all of our household help with birth certificates (because yes: those are actually difficult to get in my country), SSS/PAG-IBIG/Phil-Health numbers… the works.

I spent the rest of primary school and the entirety of middle school believing that this was normal. This is how you’re supposed to treat your maids and your drivers, the janitors at your school, the waiters and waitresses at restaurants. Labor is labor. They are doing what you choose not to do. What you have the privilege of not doing.

 

Part III

I’m in high school, begging off from another night out. I am not yet used to the strange looks, the irritated responses. “They’re just maids. He’s just your driver. Don’t you pay her/him/them for that?”

I hear stories from my peers. They’re not exactly stories like this. They’re written out over the months and years, phrase by phrase.

Bakit walang uniform yung mga katulong ninyo?” (“Why don’t your maids have uniforms?”)

“Oh, we lock them up in our house when we leave.”

“We buy different food for them. Ang mahal kasi.” (“It’s so expensive, see.”)

“She stole from us. Iba kasi sila eh.” (“They’re different.”)

“Wow, your family’s sending your maid to school?”

Then, I’m in college. Begging off turns into negotiation. “I’ll stay out until midnight or so, that cool? My driver needs to sleep.”

I am, by then, used to the strange looks. I respond, in kind, to the irritating comments. Everyone in Manila could run their household one way. We ran our household differently. That was all there is to it.

 

Part IV

2013. I’m in a motel in Vancouver, watching my parents talk to B. She’s so happy to see us again, it’s been years, how have we been? She’s fussing over me, fussing over my younger brother (“You’re so tall now! All grown up!”), showering us with all of the things she prepared for our stay. My parents tell her she didn’t have to do any of this. B shuts them down, says we’ll have sandwiches and juice for our visit to Victoria Island.

A few days later we’re in D’s house, eating with her family for dinner. We catch up on everything. I play with her raccoon-sized cats. She and her husband insist on being the ones to bring us to the airport when we have to go back. My parents ask if they’re sure, they wouldn’t want to impose. D shuts them down.

Later, on the day of my flight, D notices me looking at a souvenir store and checking a Canucks shirt out. She comes to me over lunch, presses the shirt I didn’t have enough money to buy for myself into my hand. She also hands me some money. I try to beg off. She shuts me down.

I tell my parents about this later, when we’re on the plane. My mom says what she always says when B, D, and just about anyone who has worked under us comes back around: “They’re grateful to us. We’re blessed to have had them with us.”

 

Some Words on Westernjacking & Minorities Talking for Minorities

These think pieces that erases [sic] the feudal history of the Philippines and the history of its peoples bondage under Spanish and American rule, and wipes clean the inconvenient truth that Americans treated Filipinos like monkeys to be gazed at at the zoo; absolves themselves of their ancestors who thought Filipinos were the same station as dogs, that called Filipinos “coloreds” and reinforced and perpetuated a classist system that still places priority on hierarchy and skin color; who conveniently never remember that we were called the “Noble Savages” and said it was their destiny to teach us to be civilized. The think pieces that sound like “brown men, what you have done is bad! Listen to the enlightened ones”. –Josyn Palma

Let’s go back to the word katulong. Google Translate is going to tell you that it means “assistant” before it means “auxiliary”, “orderly”, “helper”, “maid”, and “servant”.

Let me share another word with you: kasambahay. “Kasama sa bahay“. People who live with you in your home. Different from kapamilya, which translates basically into “your family”. But they live in your home.

So. What is a maid/servant, but not a maid/servant? What is someone who lives with you (probably even raised you as a child), takes care of your home, but is “not family”?

Nuanced, isn’t it?

The late Alexander Tizon, perhaps, used “slave” in his piece because it was the English word that best described the conditions under which Lola worked. She’s one of the many products of a specific breed of debt slavery that is found in the Philippines. This Twitter thread describes how things are in my country pretty well.

We note that echoes of indentured servitude exist, either in the form that Tizon described, in “lesser” forms of evil, or in deep-seated prejudices. It is not uncommon for people down here to hear about So-and-So, who got a maid from the province and is only paying her in food, shelter and clothing because said maid “owes” her family a debt of gratitude – utang na loob.

My Family’s Slave has been met with a whole lot of responses. Many of them are extremely angry. Distressingly, many of them are coming from white Americans or Westerners with zero understanding of the cultural context of katulong here, much less an awareness of the socio-political milieu in my country. If it isn’t that, it’s often another minority group equating this narrative to, let’s say, African-American slavery.

Here: a history lesson before we go on.

Here are some more historical facts, interspersed with opinions that I have tried to be as critical as possible with:

  • Spain sold the Philippines for $20M to the United States of America. (The Treaty of Paris of 1898, look it up. TL;DR: one colonial master to another.)
  • The United States of America made a deliberate decision to call the Philippine-American War that happened as a result an “insurrection”. (Trip out on that a second, will you? A+ erasure, if I do say so myself)
  • My history books are full of stories on how the USA changed us from 1898-1946. US history books usually don’t cover the Philippines beyond anecdotes from the Pacific front of World War II.
  • From what I can see, another thing US history books fail to talk about is the role that the country played during the regime of dictator Ferdinand Marcos. How they had a hand in all of that.
  • Because a colonial legacy is the gift that keeps on giving, Filipinos have been going abroad to start a new life for decades. Here: a BBC documentary.

What am I saying here? I’ll put it plainly.

I’m saying that a large part of the reason why my country is in the shitty state that it’s in is because the USA exploited us for its own means. The playing field was never, ever even. It still isn’t. Cursory reading on the history of Filipino migration to the United States will show you that.

So, yes. It’s the epitome of arrogance, entitlement, and hypocrisy to see white people outraged at Tizon’s piece, and crashing into the conversation like they have some sort of moral ascendancy on the matter. They focus on the horrifying events (because they WERE horrifying, I’ll get to that), and not on the fact that Tizon’s work was also a story of immigration, of dying/surviving/dying/surviving in the West, countries that are more often than not complicit in the formation of the systems of abuse and exploitation that they are running from.

As for the other minorities who are weighing in on this: thank you, but please, take care and mind your words. I don’t write your stories for you. I don’t direct your conversations for you. This was Tizon’s attempt at a conversation. This is MY attempt at a conversation. These are conversations that ought to be led by Filipinos, for Filipinos. Let us have it.

This isn’t a pissing contest of suffering, of who was more oppressed than who. Suffering is suffering. Oppression is oppression. The only way to mitigate suffering – and, hopefully, stop it entirely – is if more people listened instead of simply speaking. The only way to stop oppression is to acknowledge it in its many different, nuanced forms.

 

Some Words to Other Filipinos

I didn’t start this piece with a story to show you how my family is better than anyone else’s. We are not. The only thing we did was what is expected of good employers: that your people are treated as people, not property. What is expected is NOT good. It just is.

response to my familys slave
To whoever thought that they were doing everyone a favor by editing his Wikipedia post like this: Sit. Down.

Tizon’s piece is powerful because it is honest. He was complicit in a terrible practice, and he wrote all about it. He’s not a hero, but he also does not deserve the vitriol that is writing itself out over social media. The only thing I got from the piece was the story of a man struggling with abuse happening under his roof, tangled up in the complex dynamics of an immigrant family. Could he have done more? Maybe. But do all the shoulda-woulda-coulda of Tizon really contribute anything to this conversation?

He’s dead. Let him rest – but let his conversation happen.

What are we doing or not doing that is causing over 2.7 million households to be too poor to buy a meal? What are we doing or not doing that is continuing this practice of indentured servitude? We have laws like Republic Act 10361 in place for the protection of domestic help, but do we even follow them? Do we, at the core of it, actually view those who don’t have the same means or privilege as us as human? (There’s plenty of evidence to the contrary. Like so.)

Many of us believe that in employing our “less fortunate brothers and sisters”, we are doing them a favor. They live to be guided, to have a place under the roof of their betters. On the other hand, we buy our salvation and our moral ascendancy by treating them well, by giving them opportunities. Labor is cheap; laborers are a centavo a dozen. For us to have chosen who we did and given them decent work is the mark of greatness. It ought to give us the right to say all the shit we can about poor people, about how they think and how they behave and what they aren’t versus what we are.

Sounds familiar? If it does, I’m not judging whoever thinks that way, but I do hope they’ll rethink their position. I hope, as well, that you’ll call them out on it.

Let’s not turn Alexander Tizon’s article into the internet’s Tearjerker/Ragewank of the Week, guys.

Let’s talk.

 

Appendix: Reading Material on OFWs & the Philippine Context

The author welcomes any other articles, Twitter threads, Facebook posts or whatnot that can give everyone more perspective. Drop them in the comments.

Mark Ronald Rimorin: Some Notes on Westjacking

Esquire: Don’t Pretend to Understand Lola Pulido’s Situation

Twitter account: Adrian Chen, collecting responses to Tizon

The Seattle Times: Lola Pulido lived a life of devotion to family

Broadly@Vice: Inside the Dubious Schools Training Filipina Women for Domestic Work Overseas

NYTimes: Israel’s Invisible Workforce

California Sunday: Below Deck

The New Yorker: The Cost of Caring

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Pamela Punzalan
30, female, not in Narnia about anything. Games, writes, DMs, watches shit, reads shit, loves cats. Answers to Kae, Pamela, Pam, Pam-Pam, Pammy, Pammeth. Pamera, and Pammu. Also part of the admin team of What's a Geek, over at http://www.whatsageek.com!

6 comments

  1. “These are conversations that ought to be led by Filipinos, for Filipinos. Let us have it.”

    Thank you for this post, Pamela. I was angry about how Lola was treated, but I got just as angry when I saw the threads on Twitter, led primarily by people from the West. Where were the Filipino reflective discussions? Where were the voices of my people? While non-Filipino posters had valid points, the thing is they took the story and framed it using their Western history and culture. In doing so, they disregarded the Filipino culture and context, which is wrong on so many levels.

    As you pointed out, many equated this story with African slavery in the West, which is another issue and another context. Westerners using Tizon’s story to further discuss Western countries’ complicity in African slavery is heartbreaking. It sends the message that our story isn’t for us. It’s a stage for Western discourse.

    1. Thank you for writing back! I’m happy for the feedback, and even happier about the fact that people are reading my piece and finding it helpful. I’ve been engaging people on Twitter, and it truly is discouraging to see us Filipinos constantly silenced even as we attempt to articulate our own feelings on the matter, or the context. It’s almost as if any attempt to talk back automatically equates to us being complicit in what happened to Lola.

      Representation of our people is a tricky matter. We’ve been made invisible for decades. I’d like to put an end to that, in whatever way that I can.

  2. thumbs up, Pamela, in expressing better than I could have, my exact sentiments! I’m an old-school retired educator from a college so I don’t twitter. If I was still teaching, I would list your article as required reading for my students. Maraming Salamat. I’m also of the “old-school” or 3rd wave of immigrants from the P.I. (post WWII) and our experiences were slightly different than those who immigrated after the 1980’s. But what doesn’t change is understanding and relating to everything that you mentioned in your story. It lightens my heart to read posts from young people like you, Ann G. and others reflect and phrase their comments in thoughtful, appropriate cultural context.
    Peace & harmony,
    Annie G.

    1. Thank you so much for the kind words, ma’am! I’m a teacher myself – just got seven years and counting under my belt. It’s really nice to hear back from fellow educators and critics.

      It’s important, I think, that people write back as much as they can. As things stand, I’m happy to see so many articles coming out, both from the international front and from the local end of things.

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